Plastic cups laying on the road during a half marathon race.
At the Berlin Half Marathon in 2019, numerous discarded plastic cups can be seen on the asphalt at a catering station on Leipziger Straße. (Photo: Photo: Jörg Carstensen/dpa (Photo by Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The Heat Is On For Races to Become Greener: Here’s How

How some race organizers are making changes to become more sustainable, and 3 ways you can make a difference.

Plastic cups laying on the road during a half marathon race.
Molly Hanson

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For as simple as they may appear in comparison to other sports, putting on a massive running event produces a lot of stuff: Dump-truck loads of paper cups and bottled water; metallic space blankets; pinned numbers; heaps of plastic-wrapped bars, packets of energy gels, bananas, and other fueling substances. All of these leave behind a great deal of waste and, if not organized properly, pollution. 

Races also require a shocking amount of energy thus generate lots of carbon emissions. Consider the production and transportation of race swag like cheap T-shirts, sweaters, hats, and medals. The extraction and processing of raw materials for these mementos to be manufactured, and later delivered to and from races requires energy, natural resources, and, consequently, greenhouse gas emissions. And then, particularly in the case of massive events like marathon majors or destination-themed races, there’s the fossil fuel emissions of hundreds of thousands of people traversing the globe to get to and from the race locations. 

As global temperatures reach unprecedented new heights and pollution continues to devastate our precious and fragile ecosystems, the heat is on for race directors to start to take concrete steps to make races greener. Certainly running events contribute to a sliver of the environmental problems eroding our health, infrastructure and society, but they represent a collective way of thinking that must rapidly shift if we are to enjoy any such events a decade from now.

A garbage bin filled with cups and banana peels.
Events can produce a huge amount of waste. Photo: Denise Hovey

How Can We Make Races Greener?

The work required to make running events more sustainable isn’t exactly galvanizing — it’s logistical and labor intensive. The first step is creating a norm for event sustainability standards through measurements, verification, and documentation.

It Starts With Standards and Norms

Today the world’s leading certification program, the Council for Responsible Sport  — a 501(c) 3 nonprofit founded in 2007 aimed at helping people and groups measure the environmental impact of their events — offers a framework for sporting events to assess and certify their environmental impacts.  

“Our vision has always been of a world where responsible event production is the norm,” says Keith Peters, the Council’s former executive director. “And, again, certification… is a nice end goal for the process. We want it to become the norm and certification is required for practices and policies and plans to be developed and implemented.”

The Council has outlined a collection of the 61 best practices across five categories that organizations hosting events can strive to implement. Those five categories are (1) planning and communications, which mandates the development a formal plan to reduce event’s environmental footprint and increase social impact; (2) procurement, requiring an event to have a written sustainable procurement policy; (3) resource management, which recommends practices divided into subcategories of waste diversion, water, and carbon management; (4) access and equity; and (5) community legacy. 

When those practices are implemented and successfully verified by a third-party, an event becomes officially Responsible Sport Certified at either the basic, silver, gold, or evergreen level depending on the number of practices that have been successfully applied. Since 2007, 175 events have earned certification, 155 of which are either running or triathlon events. 

In the last year, the group has been in the process of developing and refining a new set of standards that will provide guideposts for event organizers that are specific to the language and nuance of the sport event being organized, as well as being more relevant, progressive, and ambitious. Council for Responsible Sport Managing Director Shelley Villalobos says they expect the board of directors to approve a first draft of the new standards later this spring or summer. 

In addition to certification standards, the CRS, in partnership with the sports drink brand Nuun, created A Practical Guide to Hosting Radically Responsible Events  — a free resource for sports event organizers who wanted to make first steps toward a certification. Since the guide was released at the 2020 Running USA Industry Conference just over a year ago, it has been downloaded over 400 times, a nod to the increased interest in the issue of sustainability in recent years. The guide outlines ten things that event organizers can do to create more responsible events, the first of which being to eliminate the demand for goods that generate waste.

Reducing Material Waste

The Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run has consistently earned Gold Level Inspire Certification from the Council for Responsible Sport for its legacy of sustainability efforts and resource management. 

“Running events, just by their very nature, produce a large amount of waste,” explains Event Director Phil Stewart. “So, in taking a look at the guidelines that were being provided by CRS, you take a look at every aspect of your event and see okay what can be done to recycle, reduce, or reuse?” 

The most visible area, he says, is evaluating waste and trying to use more items that can be recycled.

“It starts with putting out the recycling containers throughout the race site and encouraging people to separate out their recyclable water bottles from their banana peels,” says Stewart. From there, he says, you think about things like using more sustainable fabric in your race t-shirts, or encouraging people to bring in their old running shoes to donate or recycle. 

Workers of the green team at the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile.
The the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile’s green team helps to separate garbage at the event. Photo: courtesy of Phil Stewart

Because of the labor intensive nature of being more sustainable, the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile created a special team on their race committee, the green team. The certification process with CRS requires a lot of documentation in order to record key metrics. One of those metrics is minimizing as much as possible the percentage of materials going into a landfill. 

“In order to do that you have to be weighing what goes to the recycle versus what goes to the landfill,” says Stewart. 

The CRS also suggests that organizers emphasize the quality of the experience rather than race mementos such as t-shirts and medals. For example, when signing up for races, participants may be asked to opt for a charitable donation as a participation bonus rather than a t-shirt or other souvenir. 

Cherry Blossom, for example, gives participants the option to opt out of receiving a finisher medal. 

“We thought for some people the medal was a very important reward to get after the race but there are plenty of veteran runners around who have got a closet full of medals so we thought that okay, let’s go ahead and that’s a good way to reduce the number of medals we are producing.” It also, he notes, reduced some expense for the race. 

Working to Counter CO2 Emissions

An airplane producing vapor trails.
Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images

The environmental cost of the air travel required to get to major running events comes with a massive carbon footprint that is often not accounted for by race directors when calculating the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of their events. In fact, an unpublished report by the Council for Responsible Sport found that that event-hosting organizations reported on local travel only 48% of the time, and long distance just 41% of the time when calculating GHG emissions. Between those who did report, the average combined total event GHG footprint — operations, local and long distance travel — was 3,162 MT CO2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent). A staggering 87% of those emissions were from long distance travel. To put that into perspective, the transportation sector is 14% of global emissions according to a 2014 IPCC report, and 29% of all U.S. emissions according to a 2019 EPA report

For events pursuing certification, greenhouse gas inventories for event operations are mandatory. (Those calculations, however, are not required to be made public.) But what often gets overlooked or swept under the rug, as shown in CRS’s unpublished greenhouse gas emissions report, are the major GHG emissions from long-distance travel to events. 

“Far and away the largest impact of these events from a climate perspective is everyone getting to and from them,” says Villalobos, who points to the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile as an example for how to counter these emissions. 

In 2010, the race began offering registrants of the race the opportunity to pay a ‘carbon offset’ fee when they sign-up for the event. In other words, donate to supporting projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for emissions caused by the participant’s travel to and from the race. The number of registrants voluntarily opting to make the donation has climbed every year according to Stewart. They’ve raised over $70,000 for carbon offsets since 2010 by, for the most part, simply just giving participants the option. That money is donated to a company called Native Energy to purchase the offsets. 

“It gives the participant the power to choose to align their action to their values and it’s a simple thing to integrate logistically,” says Villalobos. “It’s a matter of an organizer saying [they] want to add that piece to [their event’s] registration process, and then choosing an offset partner and a project that matters either locally, or that has a quantifiable impact globally wherever that project is located, and letting people know what their money is doing to offset those emissions and to be part of nature-based solutions to climate change.” 

Prioritize Local Races

Based on the findings in the Council’s GHG emissions report, the biggest preventative action event organizers can take, according to the Council, is to focus their marketing and charity programs locally, rather than promote themselves to a national or international audience.

Similarly, the number one most impactful action a runner can take to minimize event-related greenhouse gas emissions is to participate in local and regional events, as well as to take public transit or carpools to get to and from the events. 

“The choice is going to be different for everyone but I would really like to see a strengthening and a doubling down on supporting local races in your area,” says Villalobos. “Because if we don’t support the local races right where we are, who will?”

It’s where she thinks the most opportunity lies in influencing the organization around local initiatives. 

“If there’s a chemical plant spewing nasty chemicals and you have a race that runs by there, that is a natural fit to speak up and let your local leaders hear you as a group,” she explains. “Advocating for the health and wellbeing of your own place.” 

Racing locally and better understanding the human and community impacts of pollution and climate change highlights another one of the Council’s focuses that reaches beyond the scope of making races greener. 

“It’s all part of this bigger puzzle of environmental responsibility and social justice too,” says Peters. He notes that when considering the social justice aspect, the local component of a race is doubly important, given that it is in local communities that events have the most impact from who their fundraising efforts go to support to who is involved in the organization and development of the event. That could be as informal as encouraging diverse participation by engaging a minority community group in the planning, or an official statement like working with local Indigenous communities to organize land acknowledgements at a race event. 

It’s through local partnerships and working with local groups that a race can promote the concept of environmental and social responsibility. At Cherry Blossom, Stewart says that race organizers provide a booth space at their expo for environmental organizations to communicate their message to the runners.

A Critical Moment for Change

A stainless-steel straw at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon Expo.
(Left) At the 2019 Bank of America Chicago Marathon Expo an educational booth demonstrated sustainability efforts and projects to visitors, who then got to spin a wheel adorned with waste management words, ‘compost’, ‘recycle’ and ‘landfill’. (Right) A commemorative Bank of America Chicago Marathon stainless steel reusable straw set by Chicago-based startup Swzle,to encourage them to add the waste-free tactic into their daily lives. Reducing the use of single-use plastic straws helps reduce demand—currently Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day. Photo: Council for Responsible Sport

Villalobos believes that right now is a watershed moment for sports to acknowledge their impacts and take accountability for them, asking what is the role of sports and the event sector in addressing solutions. 

“I think there’s a few things to consider here,” notes Villalobos. “There’s the impacts of sports themselves, which is where the council does a lot of our work engaging event organizers. But then there’s the actual influence of sport, and the organizing power of sport in those local communities and supporting initiatives, raising awareness, and all of the things that events do.” 

Nestled right under those two aspects, she says, is the inspirational element of sports to motivate people to act, particularly young people who have inherited a future that will almost certainly be defined by the climate catastrophe. 

“It’s sort of a scary time to be a kid in the world right now. You learn about climate change and it’s not a rosy future that was depicted for me when I was a kid,” says Villalobos. “Waking up to that reality took years of sitting with that and grappling with that before I could even come to some peace with it.” 

She thinks the power of participatory sports like running lies in their ability to bring people together and get organized to begin working on solutions.    

“Running and ecosystem restoration, or being just outside, I think these things fit together really naturally and nicely and can be a great source of inspiration for the youth.”

What Can Runners Do? 

1. Speak Up

As for what runners themselves can do to encourage events to become more environmentally responsible, Peters says that communicating to event organizers on issues of event sustainability is critical. 

“Most of all, they can let race organizers know they are aware of and appreciate the efforts that they’re making and if they have constructive criticism or suggestions to make to go ahead and do that.” 

2. Race Local

Racing in your local community or region is the single most effective way you as an athlete can help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions related to racing events. Runners may find it difficult to sacrifice certain culturally significant races that require long distance travel for many participants, like the Boston Marathon. And the Council for Responsible Sport doesn’t tell people not to travel. But hard choices will have to be made over the coming years if we as a global community are going to keep Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

One consideration Villalobos suggests that a runner might make is to choose one big race per year that requires long distance travel, and then decide to stay within your region for the rest of the races you participate in. 

3. Vote with your feet

Photo: courtesy of Phil Stewart

Finally, runners can “vote” for more sustainable races by consciously choosing to participate in events that are making genuine efforts to become more environmentally responsible. 

“I think everybody on our race committee feels good about [our sustainability efforts],” says Stewart. “We hope that the runners feel good about it and that maybe even runners will gravitate towards our event because of the fact that we are trying to produce a sustainable event. We very much feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Photo: Jörg Carstensen/dpa (Photo by Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images